A day after the Supreme Court gave its judgment on November 13 allowing 17 disqualified Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) in Karnataka to contest the forthcoming byelections on December 5, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) held a grand public event in Bengaluru welcoming 16 of them to the party. All but one independent among the disqualified MLAs belonged to the Congress or the Janata Dal (Secular). All the prominent leaders of the BJP, including Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa and State party president Nalin Kumar Kateel, were present at the event.
In a symbolic gesture, each MLA was handed the BJP party flag and adorned with the party’s scarf. (The only disqualified MLA who was not welcomed by the BJP was Roshan Baig, former MLA of the Congress from Shivajinagar in Bengaluru.) Soon after the event, 13 of the disqualified MLAs were officially declared the BJP candidates in the byelections.
Notable by his absence was one of the three Deputy Chief Ministers of Karnataka, Laxman Savadi, who was reportedly against the inclusion of Mahesh Kumtahalli, formerly of the Congress, who had narrowly defeated him in an electoral battle in Athani constituency in Belagavi last year. This forebodes the widespread internal dissension awaiting the BJP when it goes to the polls in 15 constituencies. (Elections to two constituencies, Maski and R. R. Nagar, will not be held now as election-related cases involving them are pending in the High Court of Karnataka.)
The fact that Yediyurappa has tantalisingly left 17 berths vacant in his Ministry (Karnataka can have a total of 34 Ministers and only 17 Ministers have been appointed so far), equalling the tally of the disqualified MLAs, is also not lost on anyone and has caused resentment among party loyalists. The implicit assumption is that the disqualified MLAs who win in the byelections will be made Ministers.
Even as the event was on at the party headquarters, a BJP rebel, Sharath Bachegowda, filed his nomination papers as an independent candidate in Hoskote on the outskirts of Bengaluru. The official candidate of the BJP from here is N. Nagaraj (MTB), who switched over from the Congress. In another case, Raju Kage of the BJP, who lost against the Congress candidate in Kagwad in Belagavi district last year, has switched over to the Congress this time around. Two disqualified MLAs, A.H. Vishwanath (of Hunsur) and Anand Singh (of Vijayanagar), who crossed over to the BJP have made their joining contingent on the party accepting their demand to bifurcate Mysuru and Ballari districts respectively. The demand, incidentally, is stridently opposed by local units of the BJP.
All this shows that it is not going to be a cakewalk for the BJP, which has also mismanaged relief work in the aftermath of the flood that affected the northern and coastal parts of the State. This has provided an impetus to the Congress to go to the voters with an assertive message during its campaign. The Congress also intends to dwell on the betrayal of the people’s mandate by the disqualified MLAs.
The byelections are significant for the BJP, considering the party’s position in the Assembly. The full strength of the Karnataka Assembly is 224 (plus one nominated MLA), while the current strength is 207. With elections deferred in two constituencies, the strength of the Assembly when it is reconstituted after the results of the byelections to 15 constituencies will be 222. The BJP has 104 MLAs (plus the support of one independent MLA) currently. It will need to win at least seven seats in the byelections in order to remain in power.
Considering that all these seats, which became vacant following the disqualification of MLAs, were held by the Congress (13), the JD(S) (3) and one independent, it will be not be an easy task for the BJP. Of the 15 constituencies where byelections are to be held, the largest chunk, that is, five, are in Bengaluru, followed by three constituencies in Belagavi district. The remaining constituencies are spread across the State with two in Haveri district and one constituency each in the districts of Uttara Kannada, Chikkaballapura, Ballari, Mysuru and Mandya.
The BJP is banking on the fact that the Congress and the JD(S) have severed their fragile alliance and will be contesting the elections on their own. The jostling between the Congress and the JD(S), especially in constituencies in south Karnataka, may be an advantage for the BJP.
Supreme Court judgment
The Supreme Court verdict on November 13 ended almost three months of speculation about the status of the disqualified MLAs. In its judgment, the three-judge bench consisting of Justices N.V. Ramana, Sanjiv Khanna and Krishna Murari upheld their disqualification by K.R. Ramesh Kumar, former Speaker of the Assembly. The Speaker’s disqualification order came after he rejected the MLAs’ resignations, asserting that they were not voluntary or genuine. It led to the fall of the 14-month-old coalition government of the Congress and the JD(S) and paved the way for the formation of the B.S. Yediyurappa-led BJP government.
Even though the disqualification has been upheld by the Supreme Court, the judgment allows the MLAs to contest the forthcoming byelections. In his order, Ramesh Kumar disqualified the 17 MLAs until the end of the 15th Legislative Assembly, which, if there is no dissolution of the Assembly, is set to last until 2023. Thus the Supreme Court judgment overrode the Speaker’s order that debarred these MLAs from contesting elections until 2023.
This twist in the tale whereby the disqualified members will be allowed to contest the byelections has flummoxed political observers in Karnataka as the MLAs have got away unpunished for their brazen display of opportunism. The 17 MLAs who resigned between July 1 and July 11 remained sequestered in Mumbai for most of July to prevent their party leaders from contacting them, and they justified their resignations by providing facetious reasons. Over the past three months it has become increasingly evident that the resignations of these MLAs were engineered by the BJP. The party succeeded in its efforts after reportedly trying to lure away Congress and JD(S) MLAs five times earlier. The BJP’s role is also clear from the fact that the saffron party rolled out a red carpet for the MLAs a day after the Supreme Court verdict.
In the first week of November, a video that went viral on social media added to the feeling that the BJP’s Operation Kamala—a phrase used to describe the party’s attempts at poaching MLAs—had succeeded in luring away MLAs. This video was from the BJP’s core committee meeting in Hubballi in which Yediyurappa, while speaking to his party’s MLAs, is alleged to have said: “At a serious time like this, in spite of knowing that that they [rebel MLAs] got us to form the government by resigning and going to the Supreme Court, you never said that you will stand by them come what may. Imagine you were in their spot? What would you do?”
Commenting on the sordid episode and the Supreme Court judgment, senior political commentator and journalist Sugata Srinivasaraju said: “The Supreme Court has given a very ambivalent judgment. By upholding the disqualification, the MLAs have been insulted, but at the same time, by allowing them to recontest, what does it say? Has the insult really penetrated these disqualified MLAs who showed no rectitude in their behaviour? They have no ideological commitment. They will go back to their constituencies and be in control, and they may even get re-elected. The Supreme Court has facilitated their re-entry into politics, and there has been no penal action taken against them. What are the ramifications of this judgment for the anti-defection law? If we can use an analogy, tomorrow Shiv Sena MLAs may join the BJP in Maharashtra, get disqualified, and then recontest and win in the byelections.”
An editorial in the Kannada newspaper Vaartha Bharathi dated November 14 compared the Supreme Court judgment on the disqualified MLAs to the verdict on the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya. “The verdict on the disqualified MLAs is similar to the Ayodhya verdict. While recognising the criminality of the demolition, the land where the mosque stood was given to the people who demolished the mosque. Similarly, the MLAs’ disqualification has been upheld, but they have not been punished for their actions,” the editorial read.
Opposition politicians were dismayed with the Supreme Court judgment and took the opportunity to lash out at the saffron party. In a conversation with mediapersons, former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah of the Congress said: “It is ultimately people’s votes that will decide and punish them. There is something called morality in politics which these disqualified MLAs don’t have.”
Former Chief Minister H. D. Kumaraswamy of the JD(S) chose to mock the BJP central leadership, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, holding them responsible for Operation Lotus in Karnataka. “When are they abrogating the anti-defection law?” he asked in an interaction with mediapersons.
On the other hand, moral quandaries do not seem to have affected the disqualified MLAs. In a statement of staggering indifference, Ramesh Jarkiholi, the disqualified MLA who wields tremendous influence in Belagavi district, said: “If dacoits can be Ministers, why can’t disqualified MLAs?”
Speaking to Frontline, Roshan Baig, the disqualified MLA from Shivajinagar, said: “I welcome the decision by the Supreme Court that foiled the plans of opposition party politicians who tried to get rid of us without directly fighting us in the elections. I am going to join the BJP and will be contesting from Shivajinagar.”
Similar sentiments were echoed by the other disqualified MLAs in interviews in the electronic media, although a few MLAs, including K. Sudhakar, disqualified MLA from Chikkaballapur, stated that they would file review petitions contesting the Supreme Court verdict that upheld their disqualification. (Frontline spoke to Baig on the day of the verdict when he was confident that he would join the BJP, but a day later it became clear that the BJP did not want him in the party).
If the BJP does manage to win at least seven seats overriding the intra-party rifts that are on open display, Yediyurappa can breathe easy and get down to some serious governance, which has been ignored so far. But if the Congress and the JD(S) manage to win more seats than the BJP, Karnataka will be in for another spell of political instability.